Ramped-up US construction exposes workers to an unregulated toxic
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act means vital upgrades for our nation — but workers using epoxy resins face risky exposures to the chemical BADGE, which has no safety standards.
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series, BPA's evil cousin. See related reporting on how BADGE is top chemical of concern for workers handling epoxy resins.
LOWELL, MA — During the 25 years he worked as an industrial and commercial painter, Ken Seal handled a lot of nasty chemicals, like epoxy resins, titanium dioxide, isocyanates and volatile organic solvents. Once, while leading a crew on a job painting with an epoxy resin paint at an Intel plant, he experienced what he calls a “horror story.”
“All of my guys broke out in a rash, with itchy, small red bumps all over their arms, legs, torsos and faces,” he told Environmental Health News (EHN), “and we were protected with full-face [respirator] cover, everything we were supposed to do.”
“When we went to find out more about the product, it was protected by a trade secret.”
The rashes went away after a day, but Seal said, “I don’t know if there were any long-term effects … because you really don’t know.” The identity of the rash-causing culprit was never determined, and he doesn’t talk to the guys on that job anymore. For the past 13 years, Seal has worked as an apprenticeship training representative at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades Finishing Trades Institute, teaching apprentice painters, including how to protect themselves from the many hazards of their jobs.
“People need to know that it's bad out there. There are things that can hurt and kill you, but these are all the things that've been put in place for reasons to protect you,” Seal said, referring to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and the union’s health and safety program. “I tell all my apprentices, a contractor does hire you to make them a profit, but the contractor does not have a right to make a profit off your life.”
As thousands of projects to modernize America’s bridges, roads, energy and transit systems come online with funding from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by the Biden administration in 2021, health protections for the construction workers carrying out these vital upgrades are critical; yet, for many chemical exposures, these protections are inadequate.
All those thousands of new bridges, wind turbines, water towers, and rail and marine terminals must be painted with layers of epoxy resin and other protective coatings to prevent or slow corrosion. Research shows that the construction workers who apply these paints via high-pressure spray guns, rollers and brushes can breathe in, absorb through their skin, and take home on their clothes some highly toxic chemicals, including bisphenol-A diglycidyl ether, or BADGE. The health implications could be stark.
“We know it's getting into people, and we know that it can cause all sorts of mischievous chemistry by sticking onto biomolecules essentially irreversibly, including DNA,” Terry Collins, Teresa Heinz Professor in Green Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, told EHN.
BPA’s insidious cousin
BADGE, as previously covered by EHN, is a cousin of bisphenol A, or BPA, that has gotten far less attention, though it shows potentially equal endocrine-disrupting potential (meaning it interferes with the proper functioning of hormones) as BPA, as well as other possible harmful impacts, including liver and kidney effects and cancer. It is the predominant chemical used in epoxy resins — ubiquitous on construction sites, providing strong, durable corrosion-resistant adhesion. Epoxy resins are also used in floor coverings, sealants, fillers, cements in terrazzo floors and walls, and as alternatives to traditional rivets and mechanical fasteners. The construction industry uses 30% of the epoxy resins produced in the U.S., according to the American Chemistry Council, and is the second largest user of the materials after the transportation sector.
There are no legal exposure standards for BADGE, which means that employers are not required to monitor for the chemical nor keep air exposures below a certain level to protect workers. Similarly, OSHA has no standards for skin exposure, which is especially problematic for a chemical like BADGE that is readily absorbed through the skin. While manufacturers are required to list BADGE and its health hazards on safety data sheets, little guidance is given on these sheets for protecting workers because the research on human health impacts is so sparse.
What little human health research there is on BADGE, and particularly on workers who handle the substance, focuses on contact dermatitis, such as that experienced by Seal’s crew.
“Contact dermatitis has dominated this discussion, and rightfully so,” Dhimiter Bello, professor and associate dean for research at the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, told EHN. He shows pictures of terrazzo workers with such advanced cases of skin sensitization that the skin is falling off their hands. “The whole biology behind skin regeneration and development has been compromised at the genetic level” by these materials, he said.
Workplace exposure to epoxy resins
But skin sensitization from epoxy resin exposure is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Bello, lung cancer, occupational asthma, neurotoxic impacts, endocrine disruption and acute kidney effects are all health concerns for painters handling epoxy resin coatings. Bello is deep into a 10-year research project studying the complex chemistry, exposure pathways and health endpoints of resin systems used in construction, along with his wife, Anila Bello, a research professor in the Department of Public Health at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. CPWR — The Center for Construction Research and Training, an organization founded by the North America’s Building Trades Union — funds their intervention-focused research, along with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
In the first U.S. biomonitoring study of workplace exposure to epoxies, the Bellos measured BADGE and its metabolites in the urine of bridge painters. They found a three-fold rise in one of BADGE’s breakdown products in painters’ urine over the course of the workday. “Whatever protective measures they were using in the workplace, they were not effective in preventing these exposures,” Anila told EHN, adding that they saw an uptick in BADGE regardless of whether the painters were using a spray gun, or rollers and brushes.
The Bellos compared the urinary BADGE exposures with biomarkers for kidney injury and found “a strong association … that implicates epoxies,” said Dhimiter, noting, however, that “Whether BADGE itself is involved in acute kidney injury, or is a surrogate marker for the other things cannot be settled” by this study.
Solving the problem of harmful workplace exposures to epoxies
The study adds further evidence that BADGE gets into urine, which can happen to non-workers as well from eating food from cans lined with the compound, Collins said. BADGE is a “bifunctional alkylating agent,” he said, “and such chemicals are always suspected as potential carcinogens” because of their ability to crosslink to DNA.
While the Bellos haven’t investigated the link between epoxy resins and endocrine disruption, Dhimiter points to research on BADGE’s ability to disrupt fetal development by affecting fat metabolism in the placenta and the transport of nutrients from the mother to the fetus. Studies of male workers in Korea and Japan have found levels of BADGE and its metabolites in blood and urine at levels that produced hormonal alterations. The Japanese study, additionally, found BPA in the urine of workers who sprayed epoxy resins containing 10%-30% BADGE at levels that disrupted the hormones that regulate testosterone production. (BPA is a likely breakdown product of BADGE, in both the body and in the environment.) Studies of male Chinese workers exposed to BPA have similarly detected reduced sperm counts.
The potential for reproductive harm concerns Seal, though he focuses more on the impact on women. “Men can get [exposed] and transfer it, but we're getting more women in the trades today than ever before,” he said. “There's other effects they face when they get pregnant.” Reproductive hazards are one of many topics covered in the union’s apprentice training program.
Compared to 38 years ago, when he was an apprentice painter, Seal said that the focus on job safety and health is exponentially better and he’s confident that the union’s training program equips novice painters today with the knowledge and skills they need to protect themselves.
“But once they leave our door, and they're working for the contractor, I've lost control.”
This reporting is part of BPA's evil cousin: an ongoing series on the hazards and regulatory blind spots associated with BADGE, a chemical cousin of BPA. The series is generously supported by the Fine Fund.